Will teacher leadership matter tomorrow?

Teacher leadership will matter for the long run—strengthening America’s public schools and the teaching profession—but only if we get sharp about why it matters and how it can best be deployed for students’ benefit.

There is a lot of talk about teacher leadership today. I am proud of the role the Center for Teaching Quality has had in elevating the power and potential of teachers leading without leaving the classroom. 

However, many school organizations and teaching policy reform initiatives still ground their “teacher leadership” efforts in long-standing models of industrial-era management. More than 20 years ago, my colleague and friend Mark Smylie pointed out that teacher leaders often are recognized only when supervisors either “anoint” or “appoint” them.  Unfortunately, these top-down approaches to teacher leadership continue to be more the norm than the exception.

Some nations have figured out more effective ways of treating teachers as leaders. The recent Teaching and Learning International Study (TALIS)—including data from 100,000 randomly selected teachers in 6,500 schools and 34 nations—hones in on some very important differences in the conditions under which teachers lead both in the United States and abroad.

One huge distinction is the fact that American teachers are less likely to be evaluated by expert peers. Instead, most observations are conducted by administrators who may not be skilled teachers themselves or may not have much background knowledge in the subject or grade level they must assess. On average, teachers in other countries are twice as likely to be evaluated by peers as U.S. teachers.

Ironically, this holds true even as American policymakers have made much needed investments in teacher evaluation, but researchers have found serious problems with both tools used and the capacity for administrators to use them.

The newly overhauled teacher evaluation systems in our nation fall short of other nations’ approaches in two other important ways. First, they rarely place a premium on teachers’ ability to spread effective practices among colleagues within and beyond their schools.  And the evaluation process typically offers few opportunities to engage in “reciprocal mentoring” in which educators exchange high-quality feedback on instruction and inquiry into student learning.

American policymakers are right to concern themselves with the quality of instruction in our K-12 schools. But the “how” of improving that instruction must go beyond top-down evaluation systems and “anoint-and-appoint” teacher leadership. Instead, our students deserve models that strategically draw on teachers as experts capable of assessing and strengthening one another’s practice. The top-down approach of relying on overstretched administrators (and piling leadership responsibilities on top of teachers’ instructional duties) just isn’t helping us improve tomorrow’s schools.

Teacher leadership will matter for the long run—strengthening America’s public schools and the teaching profession—but only if we get sharp about why it matters and how it can best be deployed for students’ benefit. 

Check out my commentary in Education Week, which shares the evidence for teacher leadership and points to the obstacles that block its realization in our schools. Hope you’ll share your own observations about the three barriers that we (including education advocacy organizations, policymakers, and administrators) must address so teachers can lead without leaving the classroom. 

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